Most of us are aware of our state and national economic crisis. But there is something else looming that few have noticed — and which will profoundly affect the way our country works.
Newspapers as we know them are imploding, maybe not quite as dramatically and rapidly as the domestic auto industry, but just as surely. Basically, the Internet has crushed two of the mainstays of the industry’s business model: Most classified advertising has migrated to free sites such as Monster.com, and Craigslist.
Meanwhile, most folks under 30 have largely quit reading actual printed papers, preferring to surf their content on the web. And despite frantic efforts, nobody in the newspaper business has figured out how to generate much revenue off web operations.
That has given a nearly lethal one-two punch to the revenue stream most newspapers need to survive.
Partly as a result, there are nearly 300 fewer daily newspapers today than in 1950, according to the National Association of Newspapers. Many of those left have suffered steep circulation declines, or are teetering on the brink of extinction.
Beginning next year, for example, The Christian Science Monitor will stop publishing the paper in print and, instead, offer subscribers a continuously updated version on the web.
In Michigan alone:
Both the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News have been intensely cutting staff for the past 18 months. I’d guess their newsrooms are down at least 10 percent — and down far more from the 1980s, when there was still a newspaper war between them.
There are persistent rumors that the leaders of the Detroit Media Partnership, the joint operating agreement company that is controlled by Gannett and runs both Detroit dailies, are considering eliminating print editions on at least a couple days of the week.
Booth Newspapers, Michigan’s second largest daily newspaper group, announced last week that all production work – copy editing, page design, graphics – for all eight of its newspapers would be consolidated in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. The company also announced a massive round of buyouts. Earlier, they virtually eliminated their large Lansing bureau.
It’s likely the Oakland Press, the Royal Oak Daily Tribune and the Macomb Daily – all owned by the financially troubled Journal Register Company – are on the market. Journal Register announced last week plans to sell an unspecified number of its daily and weekly newspapers.
Journal Register stock price is now around 10 cents.
Gannett, which bought in 2005 my old newspapers, including the Observer & Eccentric, will be moving staffers from suburban offices to the Free Press building in downtown Detroit. The presses that formerly printed the papers have been sold, and the Livonia office building is on the market.
OK. So I know what you are thinking: Things are bad everywhere and I ought to quit whining about my old trade.
That’s true enough, but there’s a dimension to the death of newspapers as we know them that deserves more than a passing note. For something like 200 years, in towns big and small all across the country, thousands of people we call “reporters” have roamed the highways and byways, persistently asking impertinent questions.
These questions – and the news stories that arose from them — have made up the stuff and substance of newspapers and helped frame the debate for our democracy for as long as we can remember.
Sometimes these questions were well put; sometimes not. And sometimes the newspapers were good, tough and accurate; and, well, sometimes not.
But the main work of newspapers always has been to inform the public – whether about doings in their hometown’s town hall or what is happening in our nation’s capitol or, indeed, around the world. The basic idea behind all this is that you cannot have a democracy without an informed citizenry and an institution whose job is to speak truth to power.
There will be fewer and fewer reporters roaming the streets as the industry continues its decline. There already are; the American Society of Newspaper Editors estimates a drop of 2,200 since 2001.
What may be worse is that those who remain will be increasingly concentrated in big cities like Washington and New York and Los Angeles.
So who’s going to find out what’s really going on in Livonia or in Marquette? There used to be 50 or so reporters based in Lansing. Today, I’d be surprised if there are 10 left. Who’s going to keep tabs on all the shenanigans going on in our state capitol?
I believe the implosion of the newspaper industry is going to produce a grave crisis made worse by the fact that, like poison gas, it will largely be invisible: We will have a citizenry that progressively knows less and less, and a bunch of people in power who come under less and less surveillance by a declining number of journalists whose fundamental responsibility is to the public at large.
You know what happens to precious things in a world without watchdogs.
It doesn’t make for a pretty picture.
Editor’s Note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics, and a former chairman of the Michigan chapter of the Nature Conservancy. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank which publishes the Michigan Scorecard. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at email@example.com